Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Hi folks -- since I am coordinating this competition for 2011, I decided to also post the announcement on my blog. I want to spread the word on this as much as possible. I encourage both undergraduate students and graduate students to apply.




In order to encourage research and writing effort among university students in the area of automotive history, the Society confers its annual award for the best student paper in the auto history field. The award is named for Richard Scharchburg, the late Professor of History at Kettering University, eminent automotive historian, and past president of the Society of Automotive Historians. Persons submitting papers must be enrolled at educational institutions (upper-class undergraduate or graduate level) at the time of submission. This competition is international in scope, but papers must be in the English language. Papers already published or scheduled for publication will not be accepted.

Manuscripts should not exceed 10,000 words, and should be double-spaced. An abstract is requested. Judging criteria include clear statement of purpose and testable hypothesis, accuracy and thoroughness of research, originality of the research, documentation, quality and extent of bibliographic resources, and writing style. Diagrams, graphs, or photographs may be included. Submissions are to be electronic, in Word 1997-2003 format or pdf files only, to the e-mail address below.

Possible subjects include but are not limited to historical aspects of automobile companies and their leaders, regulation of the auto industry, financial and economic aspects of the industry, the social effects of the automobile, highway development, environmental matters, and automotive marketing, design, engineering and safety.

A cover letter should be included stating the student’s address, school, program, advisor, and stage in studies. The student should indicate how the paper submitted will relate to his or her professional future. Submissions must e-mail dated by June 10, 2011. All papers submitted will be acknowledged.

Upon recommendation of the judges, the winning paper will considered for publication in the Society’s Automotive History Review. The award consists of a plaque and a cash prize of $500.00.

Submissions should be sent to: John A. Heitmann, Ph.D, Chair, Student Awards Committee

Department of History

University of Dayton Tel: 937-229-2803

300 College Park Fax: 937-229-2816

Dayton, OH 45469-1540 e-mail: john.heitmann@notes.udayton.edu

Friday, November 26, 2010


Hi folks -- Ed Garten is a good friend of mine who has often contributed to this blog. Below is his story of how he first came to love the cars that he enjoys so much to see at car shows and on the road. It is also a tale that conveys the powerful effect of sense of place on our lives.
After reading the story below, click open the U-Tube video link at the bottom.
"Hey, Mrs. Jones, how's the Willys runnin' these days?" "How's that old Hudson performing for ya Mr. Jackson? Ever think of taking it to the racetrack over in Virginia?" "How you doin' this afternoon, Miss. Lowe, ever think about gettin' rid of that Henry J of yours? The new Fords are really pretty you know." "Seems to be some oil leakin' out of the rear end of your Studebaker Mr. Ross, just noticed it when I parked my bike beside it to bring your paper up to the house."
Come along on a ride as we begin at the old bridge crossing the Greenbrier River at the intersection of West Virginia Routes 3 and 12 and head up Tunnel Hill into Hilldale (the rural southern West Virginia community where I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s). This was very poor community then as now. Then continue on to the end of Hilldale and down the mountain into and through the next village of Talcott (famous for the C & O Railway, the Big Bend Tunnel, and the American folk legend John Henry). Yours truly graduated from Talcott High School in 1965 with a huge graduating class of seventeen young people.
But, from the top of the hill entering the village of Hilldale until one decends the mountain on the other end headed toward Talcott, that was my newspaper route delivering the Hinton Daily News from the age of 13 until I gave up the paper route a week or so before high school graduation. Essentially a two mile long paper route. Can you imagine delivering to approximately 60 customers on this long and hilly route in the middle of winter and in a deep snow? The Hinton Daily News sold for 5 cents an issue, six days a week. I would collect from my customers on Saturday -- 30 cents for the week. I made 2 cents profit and the newspaper company got 3 cents. If everyone paid in a given week I would "collect" approximately 18 bucks and made a cool $7.20 a week for my labors (or a buck twenty a day if you look at it that way). But some of my customers each week would always claim they couldn't pay because their welfare check hadn't arrived yet or (as I sometimes suspected, they had left some cash behind at the liquor store). In those cases the common Appalachian phrase would be to me: "Can ya carry me?" Meaning: "Can you collect next week when I might have some money on me?"
To think that, today, I sometimes spend a buck twenty for a parking meter, a very small bag of chips, or a can of Coke. We learn lots of lessons relative to how, at an early age, we handle and view money don't we? And that period in life as a paper boy taught me many lessons about the value of money, not to mention valuable lessons related to self-discipliness, promptness, and courtesy. What lessons have you learned about "money and life" over the years? Moreover, for those of us who had jobs as young people, what might we have learned about other folks at an early age? As a paper boy I learned that everyone is different. I learned to interact with diverse personalities and, sadly, I sometimes saw a dark side of life: Fathers that severely beat their children, alcoholic mothers and fathers who came to the screen door to get their newspaper but who could barely stand up. I also had generous and giving folks on my paper route including wonderful men and women who every day, without fail, would inquire of my health or ask how school was going. Many of these folks would give me a little Christmas present as the holidays approached. A warm pair of socks, a bag of candy, a dollar bill in an envelope with my name on it, all gifts that spoke to my heart and showed their appreciation of my service as their paper boy (well, the candy spoke to my stomach).
Tellingly, my love of automobiles probably developed during those years delivering the newspaper -- literally I knew the make, model, and year of every single car in our rural community and if I saw one of my customers I'd typically ask the person: "How's the Willys running Mrs. Smith?" or "How's that old Hudson doing for you Mr. Jackson, ever think of taking it to the racetrack over in Virginia?" or perhaps to the elderly spinster in our village: "Excuse me Miss Houchins but when I parked my bike to bring your paper up I noticed that one of your recap tires is peeling off. Might be good to think about some better tires for winter, just for safety's sake?" And the old bachelor who looked like his car: "Mr. Jones, ever think about gettin' rid of that Henry J of yours?" For some reason as a young boy, memorizing every detail of every car found along my paper route was important to me. Perhaps I was the only kid in the community who knew everything about everyone's car! A walking automotive encyclopedia! Of course a few of the cars I admired were, as they said down in the hills, "up on blocks" and likely would never see the highway again (but there was always hope). The first "foreign cars" as we called them that I ever saw as a newspaper boy were owned by customers. A elderly couple's son had just returned from an Army tour in Europe and there sitting beside his house was a red Alfa. Wow! The first Italian car I'd ever seen. And then another customer, considered to be an eccentric in the community, bought and parked in front of his house a used Simca. A year later he bought an old Hillman to give the Simca company. No mechanic around would touch either car and within a year both were "up on blocks" never to be driven again!
And there were some sad times delivering papers. For example, I recall picking up my load of papers the afternoon after John F. Kennedy had been killed. PRESIDENT KENNEDY DEAD: NATION MOURNS said the front page of the newspaper. I was only 13 years old but I tied a little American flag on the carrier of my bicycle -- even arranged it so that it was flying half staff. I recall walking onto the porches of all of my customers, knocking on their doors, and then the man or woman of the house appeared, saying with tears in my eyes: "Isn't it so sad, so sad......."
The money earned from my paper route was not to be sneezed at and I had my priorities for how it was to be spent. First priority was to keep my bicycles (I had two) in good mechanical shape so that "the news would always go through." Of course expenditures on a few frills also took a few dollars every once in a while: An extra reflector (for safety?), a new carrier rack, streamers for the handlebars, a new electric horn perhaps. And, yes, every week I might spurge on an RC and a Moon Pie (what for us hillbilly boys would have been known as "health food.) But the bulk of my meager earnings from that paper route went directly into a savings account at the National Bank of Summers in Hinton, West Virginia -- to be saved for first year expenses at college and for textbooks. As a freshman my first novels by J. D. Salenger, Albert Camus, Hemingway, and others were bought with "savings" from that paper route! Does deferred gratification pay off in the long run? Perhaps......but, when was the last time I read Camus? (smile).
But, hey, check out my "paper route" from 1961 through 1965.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Photo of 1936 Terraplane: Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues

Thanks to Ed Garten for the photo of an Uncle's magnificent 1936 Terraplane (Orville Wright was given one). An inexpensive Hudson, it was the subject of one of the great Blues songs of the 1930s, played by artist Robert Johnson.

And I feel so lonesome
you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome
you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin my terraplane
for you since I've been gone
I'd said I flashed your lights mama
your horn won't even blow
I even flash my lights mama
this horn won't even blow
Got a short in this connection
hoo-well, babe, its way down below
I'm on hist your hood momma
I'm bound to check your oil
I'm on hist your hood momma mmmm
I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin
way down in Arkansas
Now you know the coils ain't even buzzin
little generator won't get the spark
Motors in a bad condition
you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm cryin please
please don't do me wrong
Who been drivin my terraplane now for
you-hoo since I've been gone
Mr Highwayman
please don't block the road
Puh hee hee
ple-hease don't block the road
Casue she's restrin (?) a cold one hindred
and I'm booked I gotta go
Mmm mmm
mmmm mmmm mmm
You ooo oooo oooo
you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin my terraplane
for you since I've been gone
I'm on get deep down in this connection
keep on tanglin with your wires
I'm on get deep down in this connection
hoo-well keep on tanglin with your wires
And when I mash down your little starter
then your spark plug will give me a fire.

Happy Thanksgiving -- The turkey car!

No, not Turkey like the middle east, this is a turkey car. This doesn't look really like it is set up as a permanent art car, but it certainly brings forth the holiday spirit. Looks lie a Beetle to me, under that cover.
Are you thankful for the car that you own and drive? If so, what is that car and why?
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Signing at the NAHC -- Rubbing Shoulders with Sirens of Chrome!!

Hi folks -- I had a great time at the NAHC book signing on Saturday in Detroit. One of the most interesting aspects of the event, this year and last, were the folks associated with author Margery Krevsky. Her book, Sirens of Chrome: the Enduring Allure of Women Auto Show Models, is highly recommended. Krevsky, the owner of a modeling agency that specializes in placing models at car shows, knows her stuff. She has been in the business since the early 1980s, and indeed even changed the nature of the job for these young ladies by arguing that they should not only look pretty, but be knowledgeable about the cars they are standing near, thus having the ability to answer questions posed by potential customers.
The importance of women in marketing and buying automobiles throughout the 20th century can hardly be debated. But beyond a handful of historical studies done by a small but growing group of scholarly folks, there is little else. And certainly Detroit insiders need to be heard. That is accomplished in Sirens, a book about the models and images of models that were associated with car shows. The reproduced images give one plenty to think about, and thus this is an important book for that reason alone.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Diego Rivera, Murals, the Detroit Art Institute, and a Friday Night Concert

Hi folks -- last night I went with friends Susan and Bill Leslie to the DAI to view the Diego Rivera murals, painted during the early 1930s at the request of Edsel Ford. I have seen photos of these murals many times (only sections of!), and I must say there is NOTHING like visiting the place and meditating in front of this art in person. It is the Sistine Chapel of Industrial America, stunning in terms of scale, color, and detail. The power of this is not in the machines, which form a necessary backdrop, but the people -- their faces, expressions, muscles, angularity, clothing. And of course there is much more than the factory in sections of the mural both above and below scenes from the Rouge. There are images of war, science, medicine, primitive men and women, and raw materials. There are workers at the dies, in casting engine blocks, in assembling rear axles, and lines of workers, entering the plant in the morning and leaving at the end of shift. It is a story of human aspirations and frustrations, of birth, death, modern technology and science, and a world in transition.

There was a musical group in this hall on Friday night, a group playing folk music from the 1930s -- most appropriate given the setting. The harmonica and kazoo, along with an odd assortment of unusual instruments, took me back to a time that on one level was happy, yet on another note filled with challengers not dissimilar from those of 2010.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Signing this Saturday, November 20, 2010, NAHC, Skillman Branch, Detroit Public Library

Fifth Annual Automotive Authors Day

Saturday, November 20, 2:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Detroit Public LibraryRose and Robert Skillman Branch121 Gratiot Avenue(In downtown Detroit behind the Compuware Headquarters)

Historians and motor heads of all ages are invited to attend Detroit's largest gathering of automotive history writers. Over twenty authors who write about the world of cars and their societal impact will assemble in the Skillman Library, home to the National Automotive HIstory Collection, to share with the public their passion for all things automotive. Books will be available for purchase.

Attended parking is available in the Compuware visitor lot south of the Skillman Branch on Farmer Street. This event is free and open to the public. For a complete listing of participating authors, and maps of the area, please visit www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/NAHC. Other inquiries may be directed to The DPL Friends Foundation office at 313-481-1357 or friends@detroitpubliclibrary.org

Participating Authors Include:

Lindsay Brooke, Ford Model T: The Car That Put the World on Wheels

Mark Cantey, Driving Style: GM Design’s First Century

John Clor, The Mustang Dynasty

Tom Cotter, The Corvette in the Barn, The Cobra in the Barn and other “Car in the Barn” books

Mike Davis, Detroit Area Test Tracks

Arthur Einstein, “Ask the Man Who Owns One”: An Illustrated History of Packard Advertising

Patrick Foster, Kaiser-Frazer history; Studebaker: The Complete History; and books on American Motors and Jeep

Robert Gabrick, Go the Greyhound Way: The Romance of the Road and Sterling Trucks Photo Archive

Robert Genat, Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip

John Heitmann, The Automobile and American Life

Charles Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors

Paul Ingrassia, Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road From Glory to Disaster

Margery Krevsky: Sirens of Chrome, The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models

Randy Leffingwell, Muscle: America’s Legendary Performance Cars and Legendary Corvettes

David Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company

Jim Luikens, Standard Catalog of Mercedes-Benz

Walt McCall, City Service Hook-&-Ladder Trucks, Encyclopedia of American Fire Engine Manufacturers

Thomas McPherson, Miller-Meteor: The Complete Illustrated History and The Henney Motor Company

David Newhardt, Art of the Muscle Car and books on Camaro and GTO

Timothy O’Callaghan, Ford in the Service of America

Tracy Powell, American Auto Legends and Cadillac at 100

David Rockwell, We Were the Ramchargers: Inside Drag Racing’s Legendary Team

Jim Schild, Maximum Performance: Mopar Super Stock Drag Racing, 1962 – 1969 and Proving Ground: A History of Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth Racing

Jason Vuic, The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in HistoryAnthony Yanik, Maxwell Motor: And the Making of Chrysler Corporation

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Automobile and American Life: Quiz on Chapter 8, The Golden Age of the Automobile in America

Ok folks-- now we will see if any of my students ever look at the blog. This is their quiz for tomorrow. How many of these questions can you answer? You can find the right answers in my book, The Automobile and American Life (McFarland, 2009)!

HST 485
Dr. Heitmann
Quiz on Chapter 8

1. This University of Chicago theologian, after visiting the Chicago Auto Show in 1958, commented that the love of the automobile in America amounted to a religion. His name was ___________________.
2. Henry Gregor Felson wrote this book about cars for teenagers in the 1950s. Its main character was Bud Crayne. ____________________________.
3. This journalist wrote the important book Insolent Chariots in 1958, the first major critique of the American auto industry. _________________________.
4. This Ford executive formulated an important marketing strategy during he 1950s in which consumers were influenced to buy down rather than buy up – namely to buy accessorized, lower priced models. ________________________.
5. You watched this film about youth culture and the angst of youth during the 1950s in class last time. It stared James Dean. _________________________.
6. Another important book that was read by young men and women (especially young men!) during the 1950s was about sports cars. Its author was Don Stanford. ______________.
7. Name the two American sports cars that were introduced by GM and Ford in 1953 and 1955, respectively. __________________________ and _________________________.
8. Name the Hinton, WVA Ford dealer who is featured in chapter 8. ___________________.
9. Name the title of perhaps the first rock and roll song – its title featured a particular GM Brand. ________________________

Friday, November 12, 2010

Car Culture History Quiz -- Olympian Cars of the 1930s

Hi folks -- try answering these questions, taken from my book the automobile and American Life, chapter 6. I regularly ask these kinds of "brain teasers" to my students. They often fall flat in trying to answer them!

HST 485

Quiz on Chapter 6

Dr. Heitmann Name_____________________________

1. Name the historian who argued that the downturn in automobile production and overcapacity was a central reason why the Great Depression took place. _____________________

2. Name the marque of car that during most of the 1930s was the best seller among high-priced brands in the U.S..


3. Without doubt, this was "the car of the stars" during the 1930s. It was vehicle that was of such quality and performance that it exceeded all European competitors of the day.


4. The "Coffin Nose" Cord was designed by this man, perhaps the most talented auto designer in America before WWII. __________________________________________

5. The German Edmund Rumpler, designed this vehicle in 1921, recognized as the first streamlined personal car. It is now on display at the Technical Museum in Munich. ______________________

6. This Chrysler engineer is usually given credit for the Airflow and Airstream cars of the 1930s. ________________________________ .

7. Name the two union organizers who were beaten up by Ford Service thugs at the so-called "Battle of the Overpass." _____________________________ and __________________________.

8. Perhaps the most famous of all blues songs about cars, the "Terraplane Blues" pushed car-human being metaphors to the limit. The artist who performed this song was _____________________.

9. This 1932 film starred Jimmy Cagney and featured Legion Ascot race track. _______________________

Saturday, November 6, 2010

In Memory: Cousin George and his Cars

Hi folks-- yesterday I got some bad news -- my cousin George, some 13 years older than I, had died sometime in September. I may have been the last person to talk to him, as I had a phone conversation with George about the time that the NFL regular season started.

He had a very hard end of life, for only a few months previously his son and namesake, George, had died at age 37. A few years before all of this his wife Mary Ann had died, so he lived alone, quite alone actually, since his brother Fred had died in 2008. The suffering of the past few years was incredible, topped off by the death of his son, whom he lived near and took care of. George is survived by one other son, Norman, a lawyer working in Cleveland.

I remember the better days with cousin Georgie, however. As a very young child he took me for a thrilling ride in his 1947 green Chevrolet,; we had a 1948, but ours did not have a push -button radio. Oh, how I wanted a radio like his in our car! Near our home, Georgie hit 50 mph over some railroad tracks, an exciting ride that I quickly reported to my mother so as to get George in trouble. But I doubt that he did. Another car of George's was his 1960 blue Chevy Biscayne, a car he bought new. George was a shop and driver ed teacher, and liked his summers off. So in 1960 he took me for a day trip to Cooperstown, NY and the baseball Hall of Fame. I still can remember that Thruway trip, and the pain he endured as he had to go pee but could not stop. Other cars included a V-8 1964 Malibu that was a "sleeper," and a 1969 tan Torino with a fairly big engine.

But of all rides of my childhood, I will never forget that in the 1947 Chevy -- it was perhaps my first exposure to the thrill and risks of speed.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1941 Packard One-Twenty Convertible Sedan; 1957 DeSoto Fireflite; 1958 Thunderbird -- One student's reflections on a visit to a Conours

Hi folks -- I received a most interesting report on a visit to the Dayton Concours by one of my students enrolled in HST 485, a seminar on the automobile and American life. I wanted to share this with you all --

Robert Buchsbaum III

Oct 23, 2010,

Hst 485: Automobiles

Prof. Heitman

Extra Credit Assignment: Carillon Park 2010 Concours Antique Car Show

A few weeks ago on a Sunday noon, September 19, 2010, I travelled to Carillon Park, Dayton to attend the 2010 Concours car show. Almost 200 old cars were there along with a few antique motorcycles and a couple of newer cars (like the 2007 Lamborghini Roadster). My reaction to the event was that it was a beautiful day, a festive atmosphere almost like a state fair, loaded with all kinds of people who were car fans, some with their families. Many of the car owners were on the premises, sitting or standing near their cars, some of them straightening things around their cars or handling car maintenance items such as rags or brushes. Many of the most avid car fans seemed to be older men and women who were themselves a sampling of Ohioan antiquity. I found myself wondering if they were there to reminisce in memories of their youth refreshed by seeing the kinds of cars they might have once owned and driven. I also found myself wondering if future generations would respect the culture of the car enough to continue these shows in later decades.

Of the many cars at the show, my attention was taken by 3 in particular, whose history and significance I would like to discuss in this report. They were: a 1941 Packard One-Twenty Convertible Sedan, owned by Don Williams; a 1957 Desoto Fireflite owned by Gregg Sipe; and a 1958 Ford Thunderbird owned by Michael Wellmeier. I do not know why I was spontaneously drawn toward these three cars—possibly a combination of fascination with their odd model names (“One-Twenty,” “Fireflite,” and “Thunderbird”) and something about their overall shape and style caught my imagination and gained my appreciation and interest. My thoughts came back to my parents’ 1986 Corvette Stingray and the idea that perhaps one day it could be an antique at a show like this.

The Packard motor company was significant in American history as the role model of the big, luxury car that catered to the upper (or upper-middle) class budget and offered a powerful, luxurious, handsome, big vehicle. The company founder was a mechanical engineer who anecdotally started his car company in Warren, Ohio after he was challenged by the maker of the Winton car in 1898 to “build a better car.” The Packard company was in existence until it was taken over by Studebaker in the 1950s and by the mid 50s the Packard design disappeared from the market. Packard contributed the first steering wheel and powerful engines that grew in number from 1 to eventually 12 cylinders. Packard cars were the most popular and famous American luxury car of the first decades of the 20th century, expensive and usually purchased only by the rich, until they lost their position of dominance in the 1930s as the GM’s Cadillac took over the lead.

In response to losing its position as the number one big car, Packard diversified by developing a medium sized (or slightly smaller “large” looking car) the “One-Twenty” which became popular as a vehicle cheaper in price and thus available to a wider spectrum of middle class customers. However, eventually it came to compete for sales with other smaller cars that were increasing in size toward the One-Twenty size. The One-Twenty’s hey day was in the 1930s and the last version was made in 1941 as WWII broke out. Since Packard went to airplane production once the automobile companies were “conscripted” by the U.S. government, it did not return to making Packard cars until the post WWII era of the mid 1940s until it finally was absorbed by Studebaker due to economic nonviability. During the 1930s the One-Twenty had sales around 17,000 to 28,000 per year, which is a goodly number considering the Great Depression was ongoing. Its price at that time was generally under $2000, which was considered moderate for the time.

Packard cars were very well thought of by their owners and indeed, the company’s slogan was “Ask the Man Who Owns One.” Packard’s significance in history was to set a high standard of quality and reliability that helped guide the auto industry into the manufacture of cars that the nation could be confident in owning and operating. It also created an aura of prestige as a gentleman’s car meaning a sign of upward social and economic status, and as such may have had a role in helping form the identity of class consciousness in what was purportedly a democratic society of people with equality. As a prestige symbol, it may have subconsciously contributed to elitism in America. Packard’s legendary victory in speed racing cars was peaked in 1919 when its “Gray Wolf” car set new records. The “Gray Wolf” was a model that became sold in quantity to the public. It had a top speed of 149 mph. Packard stopped its interest in speed and durability competition races after its great victory in 1919. The One-Twenty 1941 models, such as the one at the Carillon Concours car show, represented the “last hurrah” for the Packard One-Twenty series and foreshadowed the ultimate end of an era to which Packard had materially (and attitudinally) contributed.

The DeSoto company was an offshoot of the Chrysler Corporation and lasted from 1928, when it was introduced by Chrysler founder Walter Chrysler, until 1961, when the last models were sold without further production. It was named for Hernado DeSoto, a Spanish conquistador who had brutally colonized much of the lower half of North America in the 1500s but to the American public the DeSoto car symbolized freshness, bold adventurousness, and a jazzy perspective on life. As the model went through stylistic changes in the 1930s through 1960, it came to acquire a more futuristic space-age appearance. The DeSoto line consisted mainly of V6 and later V8 engines and was considered a mid-price range car for the middle income type of car buyer looking for comfort, style, and reliability. Business sales started out phenomenally with around 80,000 sold the first year and remained brisk even through the Depression. During WWII, DeSoto built army tanks and other war production items.

After WWII, DeSoto returned to production and reached one of its peak sales years around 1949 to 1950, after which it fell into progressive decline until its disappearance as a model after 1961. DeSoto cars usually outclassed their competitors with a futuristic or romanticized appearance starting with the 1934 “Airflow” that was based on aerodynamic studies showing cars had previously been built “backward” in terms of their aerodynamic efficiency. The “Airflow” looked a little like an elongated Volkswagen “Beetle” with a front grill to let air pass through (hence, the car’s name) more easily. It was designed to have the front row seats forward and the engine moved between the front wheels, a futuristic design with good stability that caught on in the car industry. Just prior to WWII, in 1939, DeSoto cars had acquired a plush “Hollywood” look and in the late 1940s acquired a futuristic “rocket” shape. One of the trademark features was the wide front grille that resembled a toothy smile. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the DeSoto cars became larger and more powerful, including new more efficient engines that were built in competition with other car manufacturers who were engaged in a kind of “horsepower” race to see who could build the most powerful engine for a mid-size car. Around this time (early 50s) the word “fire” became a part of these more powerful Chrysler and Desoto cars, including the DeSoto FireDome and the Chrysler Firepower.

By 1955 the DeSoto Fireflite V8 was being sold. It had a powerful “hemi” engine and was styled to project an image of power. By 1956 the DeSoto Adventurer, a very powerful car for its size, was being sold with the slogan “DeSoto sets the pace.” In 1957, the year of the model I saw at the Carillon car show, DeSoto introduced a radically new, futuristic style for its Fireflite cars including fan-shaped tail-lights that provided air stability at high speeds. Although sales were high this year, a number of 1957 models had severe manufacturing defects due to quality control problems, damaging the DeSoto reputation. At the same time, corporate struggles among the Chrysler manufacturer businesses were not supportive of expansion for DeSoto into the lower price range market. As sales continued to drop, the Desoto production factory was moved to Chrysler and finally dropped by 1962.

The DeSoto represented a middle range “dream car” or futuristic car during the 1930s to 1960. It gave fire and imagination to the rest of the car industry with its breathtaking stylistic innovations and became very popular in its heyday with the average American family of moderate means looking for reliability and perhaps trying to make an impression on the neighborhood with a flashy car that looked better than its cost. As such it went right along with the futuristic and space-age inclinations of America as it moved through the post WWII phase, a time of aspirations and increased material prosperity compared to WWII and the Depression of the 1930s. Not only an impressive car in its time, the DeSoto remains impressive at car shows. Ford Motor Company started in 1903 with Henry Ford and soon led the nation with its factory production line, low priced cars that were alphabetically named including the famous Model T. Ford diversified its production line with luxury Lincoln cars and mid-priced Mercury cars in succeeding years. It also developed hot rods called Roadsters.

One of its more interesting lines was the Thunderbird, which has undergone 12 generations of styles from its origin in 1955 to the first decade of the 21st century. Ford decided to manufacture a personal luxury car that looked like a sports car when Chevrolet came out with the Corvette in 1953. The first generation of Thunderbirds were made 1955-1957. These were sleek cars with sports appearances and 2 doors. They sold under 20,000 units in the first year.

A second generation of Thunderbirds, known by the nickname “square birds,” were the first generation of Ford cars to use what has now become the familiar unibody frame. It was also the first of many Thunderbird generations to have 4 doors. The second generation “square bird” was introduced in 1958 (the year of the model I saw at the Carillon car show). Beginning with the second generation “square birds,” the Thunderbird skyrocketed in popularity and began selling at around 90,000 or more cars per year, probably because it appealed to middle to upper price buyers with families who needed a 4 door car rather than a 2 door car; it probably also appealed to the buyer who wanted to fantasize or romanticize about driving a car with sports car features and looks, but also wanted a practical but luxurious personal vehicle that would be usable for everyday life activities such as driving to work or driving the family around.

Every few years Ford would come out with a new generation of Thunderbirds, accounting for generations 3 through 12. All of these were 4 door cars. The generations were called by slang names such as “jet birds,” “aerodynamic birds,” and “big birds” to emphasize how they were uniquely styled.

The model I saw, a 1958 “square bird” 4 door car, was built at a time when the U.S. was involved in the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. and had turned the corner on McCarthyism; it was heading rapidly toward the “military-industrial” complex predicted by Eisenhower and was about to enter the space-age race to the Moon as well as greater political complexities with the soon to arrive Vietnam Conflict. So this was a time of increasing American aspirations, conservative tendencies, high consumerism, and guarded attitudes about the world and the future. For a time of cautious optimism, the Thunderbird may have been a way for a car owning male to act out, through the appearance and performance of his vehicle, fantasies about being virile, aggressive, powerful, and flashy, while behaving in a much more conservative fashion when outside of his car. For today’s antique car enthusiast, the Thunderbird of the past offers a chance to reminisce about earlier days when life was a simpler event. It is also of interest that Thunderbirds are a modern car, so the legend goes on...

Works Cited

Duricy, Dave. The origin of DeSoto cars (a Chrysler division), 1-20. http://www.allpar.com/history/desoto.html (accessed October 10, 2010).

Edmunds publishing group. “Ford Thunderbird History.” Edmunds.com. http://www.edmunds.com/ford/thunderbird/history.html ) (accessed October 15, 2010).

Grant, Marcus. "The History of Packard Cars." eHow.com. October 20, 2010. http://www.ehow.com/about_5082157_history-packard-cars.html (accessed June 10, 2009).

Edmunds publishing group. Ford History. http://www.edmunds.com/ford/history.html (accessed 0ctober 15, 2010).